“Rum is booming on the cocktail scene because it is so versatile,” says Tim Wiggins, co-owner and beverage manager of Yellowbelly, an island-inspired restaurant and bar in St. Louis. “Rum obviously is heavily involved in the Tiki craze, but it also has a place in speakeasy-style bars and dive bars,” he says.
What’s more, “it is relatively cheap and mixes better than any other spirit, in my opinion,” Wiggins notes.
While whiskey and tequila have been getting the lion’s share of the media spotlight, marketing and geekery, the rum category ticks steadily away as a mixed drink mainstay. That is changing, with more growth in aged, sippable rums and growing interest in more traditional and unusual offerings.
“Rum is definitely one of the biggest spirit categories in the world, and Rum & Coke and the Mojito are easily two of the most popular cocktails,” notes Johnny Livanos, general manager/bar program director of Ousia, a Mediterranean concept in New York. “However, rum doesn’t have the mainstream perception of being a high-quality spirit like whiskey or tequila,” he adds.
Although Ousia showcases Greek spirits such as ouzo, tsipouro and mastika, Livanos carries about 30 rums. “It’s my favorite spirit, and as consumers start to realize the beauty of rum and taste the diverse selection of aged rums produced all over the world, they will start to fall in love with the spirit,” he says.
Rum is moving away from calls for spiced distillates to “well-distilled, aged and infused rums coming from producers such as Plantation, Appleton Estate and Smith & Cross,” says Nick Murray. The director of beverage and food at the Renaissance Toledo Downtown Hotel—with two restaurants, Brim House and The Heights—carries a dozen rums, and plans to add more.
“Rum has long been a staple behind most bars, but I have seen a shift towards more rum-focused bars and cocktails,” says Johnny Contraveos, beverage manager at About Last Knife (ALK). The steakhouse and bar opened this past October in Chicago’s Hotel Julian.
“Aged rums are gaining more traction, with a push from brands to try to get people to think of rum the same way they do as whiskey,” Contraveos says. It’s also easy to “nerd out” about rum as there are so many different styles.
“The cool thing about rum is that there is pretty much a style that can fit any palate,” John Neumueller, bartender at Spoonfed restaurant and Bar Joe in Hollywood. He stocks 10 different rums. “Four of them are really ‘boutiquey’ and are more conversation pieces,” Neumueller says, “but rum is a playful spirit, and I like to have a variety around.”
Much of the innovation in the rum category is at the superpremium level, which grew a whopping 28.5% last year, to $179 million, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS). That’s a greater increase than any other category except Cognac.
High-end rums grew a respectable 5.5% in 2018. “Millennials are drawn to the cachet of luxury brands, including superpremium spirits,” says DISCUS’ chief economist David Ozgo, discussing factors contributing to growth at the higher end of the market.
Superpremium rum, usually aged brown spirit, is meant to be savored. “Sipping rum is starting to become more of a thing,” notes Neumueller at Bar Joe, “but it’s nowhere near the levels of agave spirits or whiskey.” As of yet, that is.
Just as with tequilerias and whiskey bars, a number of operators are focusing on rum. It’s one of America’s foundational spirits, “and there has been a resurgence in interest and awareness,” says bartender Todd Thrasher.
He is producing Thrasher’s Rum at his Potomac Distilling Co. in Washington, D.C. The District Wharf complex includes the recently opened Tiki TNT bar, which Thrasher also owns.
Tiki TNT stocks 70 different rums, including the rare Hamilton Jamaican pot-still black rum. The menu features both classic and updated Tiki drinks ($14). One of the most popular cocktails is the Mai Tai.
“My all-time favorite Tiki cocktail is a Mai Tai,” says Thrasher. “It was the first Tiki cocktail I tasted, and sparked my passion and interest.”
Wiggins created the concept of Yellowbelly around rum. The restaurant/bar stocks about 75 rums. “More is not always better. Having 75 rums you can speak intelligently about and stand behind is much better than having 300 rums and carrying every flavor,” says the beverage manager.
“Customers are starting to sip rums, for sure,” says Wiggins. He sells a lot of Mount Gay Black Barrel and Real McCoy 12-Year. The most unusual rum on the list is Paranubes, an agricole-style rum made in Oaxaca.
The majority of sippers Yellowbelly are priced in the $9 to $14 range for 2-oz. pours. Yellowbelly’s cocktail menu is 50/50 “New School” signatures and “Old School” classics. Drink prices range from $10 to $13.
One of the most interesting trends in the category—and where aficionados can really geek out—is with funky expressions. There is even a Jamaican brand called The Funk.
The funkiness in rum is also known as hogo, slang for the French haut gout, meaning high taste or gamey. Hogo is variously described as rancid, earthy, nutty and having a sense of place or terroir—with levels ranging from nearly undetectable to intense.
Rhum agricole and rum’s Brazilian cousin cachaça both exhibit some funk. Most mainstream brands until fairly recently worked to eliminate hogo from modern rum, but now a few distillers are re-introducing funk to their palate of flavors. And that’s winning converts.
“I love rums with hogo,” says Andrew Hannigan, bartender at Bastion restaurant in Nashville. Even in whiskey country, Bastion carries about 20 rums.
“Over the years the selection has increased, with quality aged rums from all over the world,” Hannigan says. Pours range from Plantation 5-Year Barbados rum ($5 for 1 oz.) to the rare Ron Navazos Palazzi Oloroso Cask Strength for $20.
While popular calls for rum at Virtu Honest Craft restaurant in Scottsdale, AZ, are Goslings, Sailor Jerry and Cane Land, bar manager Fernando Bambaren hand-sells Rhum Clement. “It is very earthy, funky and has such an interesting finish,” he says. “If I have a guest who is adventurous and into funky stuff, I am going to serve them some Martinique- style agricole.”
Bar Joe carries charanda, a distinctive rum from the Mexican state of Michoacan, two Haitian single-distiller clairins (sugarcane spirit), an Indian rum from Amrut, and some unusual rums from Habitation Vellier. “All of them are distinctive and wildly different,” says Neumueller. “If you tasted through them, it’d be crazy to think they’re all made from the same thing.”
“I am eagerly searching for a rhum agricole that will blow the noses right off of rum drinkers—both new and seasoned,” says Murray. These rums distilled from the raw juice of sugar cane offer complex variety in flavor profiles that bartenders are experimenting with, he notes.
Renaissance Toledo also carries the flavorful Leblon cachaça. The Brazilian spirit is fermented from sugarcane juice, and it too can offer some funk, depending upon the brand and expression. Most bartenders now stock a few bottles next to the rums on the backbar.
“Cachaça is a must. I love introducing people to this funky cousin, it’s such a fun juxtaposition to rum,” says Jack Keane, general manager of Sundry and Vice, a cocktail bar in Cincinnati. Keane stocks 10 rums; 2-oz. pours run $7 to $12. “Rum has been on the rise in the Cincinnati cocktail scene for the last few years. But I am finally seeing far better rums in far more places,” he says.
“Cachaça has become so popular in the U.S. that it would be hard to find many cocktail bars that don’t carry the Brazilian spirit,” says Contraveos at ALK. “The Caipirinha is very popular on an international level, so it makes sense for us, especially since we are in a hotel with many international guests.”
Cachaça is on the backbar at Henrietta Red, a contemporary American restaurant in Nashville. Bar manager Patrick Halloran carries Novo Fogo as well as 21 rums, priced from $8 to $13 for a 2-oz. pour.
“Rum continues to enjoy a position it’s had as long as I’ve been bartending—both in classics and as a spot on a menu for nerdier/esoteric cocktails to shine,” says Halloran.
For some, cachaça has seasonal appeal. “Cachaça will have its place in my bar program soon as we move into the warmer months,” says Ambrose Burke, a manager at Eastside Eat & Drink in Minneapolis, because it mixes well in spring and summer creations.
Burke currently stocks nine rums, but that will increase. “I’m looking to diversify my catalog of rums now that imbibers are becoming more adventurous and curious.”
Engaging Whiskey Drinkers
“I find that allowing customers to taste rums in flights or just pouring them a half ounce is the easiest way to engage them,” says Wiggins at Yellowbelly. “When a whiskey drinker tastes a 10- or 12-year-old rum with no added sugar, they will flip! Negative perceptions of rum can easily be fixed with one sip of quality rum.”
Burke at Eastside likes to consider Zaya Gran Reserva “a whiskey drinker’s rum.” The luxurious blend of 12 aged rums will seduce a brown-spirits lover with just a splash of water or large rocks cube, he says.
Even though Sundry and Vice is located in the “Buckle of the Bourbon Belt,” says Keane, it’s easy to introduce rum as another aged spirit that can be incorporated into fun, boozy bourbon drinks. He utilizes rum in many “Bartender Choice” opportunities. “I love to make split-based drinks built with bourbon and rum, and, a little secret of mine is rum and brandy—they play very well together,” Kean says.
“I often find myself talking through the history and how it influenced the different types of rums,” says Contraveos. ALK is located in a boutique hotel with a large tourist demographic. He only has room to stock eight rums, and carries mainstream brands like Bacardi and Captain Morgan to please the tourists.
But Contraveos will hand-sell some agricoles. “After getting people excited about the spirit, it becomes pretty simple to mix up a few cocktails that my bar guests will enjoy.”
Tiki Keeps On Ticking
The latest wave of the Tiki phenomenon is cresting again, and of course, the focus is on rum cocktails. But the drinks are different in this latest iteration.
“Tiki can be disregarded as silly or indulgent, but there are so many complex, beautiful layers to the cocktails,” notes Sarah Rosner, head bartender at Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons Hotel Washington, D.C. Rosner stocks a selection of around 10 rums as well as cachaça.
Arizona is experiencing a growing interest in rum classics as well as a huge Tiki revival, says Bambaren at Virtu Honest Craft. “We get quite a few orders for classic Daiquiris, but a lot of people go for Mai Tais.”
The bar manager’s riff on a classic, You’re Turning Violet, combines white rum, egg white, lavender bitters, Foro Amaro, lemon juice and simple syrup. The Tropicale di Base is a Tiki-esque mix of pineapple liqueur, apricot liqueur, banana liqueur, sherry, Cognac, spiced rum and spiced cranberry bitters. (Cocktails are $13.)
At Henrietta Red, the most popular rum drink is a Daiquiri riff called the Dr. Amp, made with Plantation Pineapple rum, lime, ginger, grenadine and cinnamon. “I’m noticing a pared down, simpler approach to Tiki drinks where you’re getting those familiar flavor profiles with fewer ingredients and with less-ornate presentation,” says Halloran.
Mixed drinks are where rum shines today, and not just takes on Tiki. “We have several rum drinks that range from classic to Tiki style,” says Livanos at Ousia.
After Daiquiris, the most popular cocktail is a Banana Old Fashioned ($14), which is a blend of banana rum, aged rum, demerara sugar and Angostura bitters.
His Tiki offering is called Montauk to Mykonos, which is a blend of aged Venezuelan rum, high-proof Jamaican rum, dates and house-made Island Spice syrup.
“At Bourbon Steak, we offer a range of rum cocktails both classic and variations,” says head bartender Rosner. As an example, she cites the Folk Art cocktail, with Ron Zacapa 23 rum, Cynar, Green Chartreuse, pineapple, lime juice and mint.
“Right now we are running a drink called Rumbunctious, a take on a classic Daiquiri,” says Burke at Eastside. He infused three rums (Appleton Estate, Plantation 3 star and Smith and Cross) with apples and mixes that with Bonal Gentiane Quina, honey syrup, fresh lime juice and Angostura bitters.
At The Heights, Murray did a twist on the Mai Tai, substituting almond milk and Frangelico for the orgeat. The most popular rum cocktail is Red Sky at Night, employing Plantation Pineapple rum, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, lime juice, allspice dram, Fernet Branca Menta, Pechaud’s bitters and activated charcoal.
“I love juicier Tiki drinks and Rum Old Fashioneds,” says Neumueller at Bar Joe. A summer signature was an Old Fashioned variant with white rum, pineapple gum syrup, coconut water and blackstrap bitters.
“At Sundry and Vice we offer a Tiki-inspired drink called a Let’s Get Dangerous,” says Keane. The “danger” comes from mixing gin and two different rums, topped with a rum float.
“I also love to write rum drinks from the classic frameworks,” Keane says. “A classic Daiquiri is one of my favorite cocktails, and my favorite framework.”
At Bastion in Nashville, Hannigan plays with hogo in some drinks. Specifically, a Daiquiri made with Panama Pacific 23-year Rum and Wray and Nephew overproof Jamaican rum. “People love this classic with the aged Panamanian and funky Jamaican rums.”
Rum’s real Potential
Wiggins sees rum’s potential trending. “As soon as it creeps in from the coasts with more bars starting to use quality rums on their menus, it will explode everywhere.”
Rum, he notes, is more versatile and mixable than whiskey or tequila and mixes just as well if not better in cocktails. “Also, it’s way more affordable than whiskey and tequila.”
Rum will definitely continue to grow in popularity, believes Burke at Eastside. “As long as there are educated purveyors that are excited about the product, there’s no reason rum couldn’t be as big as whiskey and tequila.”
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based writer specializing in all things drinkable.